Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi
Lore has it that in the years between the Emergency and the first time that the Hindu Right came to power at the Centre, roughly between the late-1970s and the late-1990s, Delhi had a vibrant set of intellectual, political and artistic cultures that spanned the full spectrum of the Indian Left: from the homegrown socialism of Ram Manohar Lohia and Jayaprakash Narayan to every stripe of Marxism, communism and Maoism, with green, Gandhian, pacifist and feminist elements thrown in for good measure.
Jawaharlal Nehru University was in its heyday. Street theatre was an active and meaningful form of social pedagogy. Student movements, labour unions and protest marches were sites for the ideological awakening of young people from both the working class and the middle class. Women were coming out of homes and hostels and speaking a new language of equality and liberation. Educated folks were still largely bilingual, able to think politically in English as well as in their own languages. The Illustrated Weekly of India was widely read to keep abreast of the arts and ideas all over the world. It went without saying that everyone on the Left opposed communalism, stood for secularism, and passionately resisted the slow, inexorable rise of Hindutva.
My own memories of this heady era in Delhi are not strongly etched, because I was then much too young. When I finally got old enough, I went away overseas to study. By the time I came back, that Delhi was going, going, gone. In the last two years that I have lived in the city full-time again, I keep trying to reconstruct a picture of the vanished Left. Friends on the Left would object to my calling it vanished, especially because there is some obvious way in which it does still survive on the JNU campus, on the pages of a few journals, in theatre groups here and student unions there, in blogs and cafés, in bookshops and film festivals, and most of all in the minds of the generation of artists and intellectuals now entering their sixties. Yes, such people are very much still around, and so are their gathering places, their rituals, their conversations, their beliefs and their acolytes. But what seems to have disappeared is an urban context in which the Left could still be politically relevant, and drive the conversation about ideology in a city changing at a breathless pace.
The end of the Soviet Union in 1989, followed by the opening of India’s markets from 1991, naturally shook the very foundations of the Indian Left. But perhaps the factor that has hurt the Left most is the wholesale privatization and corporatization of the Indian media in the last two decades. There has been not only a gradual disappearance of left-wing newspapers and magazines, but also a spate of dramatic shutdowns, layoffs, mergers, closures and purges, so that Left-leaning editors, columnists, reporters and commentators find themselves out of a job or worse, unable to identify any organization that might be willing to hire them and allow them to function with a modicum of honesty and freedom.
In India, the Left seldom brought revolution; but at least it kept alive some semblance of critique and dissent. With the media removed altogether from its grasp, the Left has been shut out of its most vital space of thought and action. The academy now appears to be going the way of the media. If — or rather, when — higher education is privatized tout court, it’s going to be hard to even describe to younger people the kind of teachers that someone of my generation had till the early 1990s: women and men of enormous intelligence, principle and creativity, lacking in cynicism, with the faith that the world could be made better through human effort.
The electoral victory of the Aam Aadmi Party in the Delhi assembly elections of December 2013 confirms the obsolescence of the organized Left. The decline of the Left began a while ago, when its traditional bastions, the states of West Bengal and Kerala were lost. The electoral successes of the BJP’s communal politics (culminating in the current status enjoyed by an out-and-out polarizing figure like Narendra Modi), the two-faced economic policy of the Congress (which marries corporate-driven neoliberalism to state-led welfarism), and the ascendant global power of China combined with its increasing ideological inscrutability, the blatant instrumentalism with which it invokes Mao while worshipping at the altar of the Market — all of these factors have decimated the Marxist Left in India. It finds itself leaderless, directionless, and intellectually pushed to the wall. It has been driven out of cultural and academic institutions; it is not setting the agenda in the fine or performing arts; and the less said about its literary output, in English or in any major Indian language, the better.
The fact that a long-standing follower of Lohia, a true believer in swaraj and a votary of Gandhian socialism like Yogendra Yadav has not only thrown in his lot with the AAP but provides the new party with its strategic judgment, intellectual coherence and moral certitude, should be seen as a sign that the Left can no longer attract the best minds who have had a real ideological education and are, at the same time, also committed to actual political change. (Disclosure: Yogendra Yadav is my senior colleague at the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies, and someone I have had occasion to interact with closely in scholarly settings for a few years.)
Yadav is an example of a prominent public intellectual who has cut his teeth in social movements, finally decided to enter politics proper, and has chosen not to do so via any of the Left parties. But the story is not so different for the hundreds of thousands of ordinary citizens who have taken to the streets, followed Anna Hazare, voted for the AAP and are now joining the party named after them, not just in Delhi but all over the country. Such people — largely middle-class, but above and below that segment as well — have come out in huge numbers against fiscal corruption in government, against sexual violence, in favour of equality, transparency, good governance, accountability, direct democracy and all manner of rights, values and demands that collectively constitute a new political lexicon. The eponymous aam aadmi (“common man”), as much as the coffeehouse intellectual, has sought — and found — an alternative to the tired, politically-outdated discourses of the Indian Left.
Can the Indian Left pull itself back from the brink? I think it can, and it must. Not only because it has a special responsibility to preserve the edge of criticism, difference and refusal in a society increasingly homogenized and domesticated by capitalism, but also because socialism, Marxism and communism came to India simultaneously with their coming to Europe, Asia and other parts of the world. In other words, Left ideologies are part and parcel of India’s political modernity and have co-existed with other strands of modern political thought in India throughout the 20th century. They have had plenty of time to put down roots in Indian political movements, to develop and debate a robust analysis of Indian social structure, and to establish traditions of ideology and praxis that are resolutely local. With some exceptions, the brutal and bloody violence that can accompany Left-ideological transformation, too, has been avoided in India.
The achievements of Indian Marxists in specialized scholarly disciplines like historiography, postcolonial theory, political economy, development economics and social and cultural anthropology could hardly have been more stellar. It is, therefore, supremely irritating, even for an outside observer, when Indian leftists wait to be thrown a bone — more likely a punch in the face — by a figure like the British New Left intellectual, Perry Anderson, rather than building a conceptual vocabulary that makes sense within India’s own historical context of political ideas. In Eastern Europe and Latin America, a severely delegitimized and weakened Left has reinvented itself and made a come-back into the political mainstream. The willingness to rethink Marx in relation to localized and particular intellectual histories and political needs accounts for these examples of resurgence.
We don’t know how the new politics that is currently being delineated by forces like the AAP will work out. We hope for the best, but cannot say where the Arvind Kejriwal brand of populist democracy will take India (West Bengal, of late, certainly does not offer an encouraging example). We do know, though, that the dream, “another world is possible”, and the prerogative to realize that dream, have for the past century belonged to the Left. It is high time the Left shook off its torpor and revived what has been, by all accounts, its interesting and energetic, if not always successful, intervention in the complex field of Indian politics.